The decision to cancel a concert by renowned Moroccan artist Saad Lamjarred in Baghdad has sparked a heated debate in Iraq over the country's civil or religious identity.
The constitution defines Iraq as a civil state and defends its freedoms, but that has not stopped religious groups from intervening and taking action against events they deem "immoral".
Lamjarred, who is widely popular in Iraq, was set to hold a sold-out concert at Baghdad's Sindbad entertainment city on Thursday. Just as the concert was about to begin, protesters, some dressed as clerics, stormed the complex and demanded that the event be cancelled, claiming it promoted debauchery. Some of the protesters even started to perform prayers at the entrance of the city.
The police intervened and the organizers were forced to call off the concert.
Those opposed to the event cited the several rape accusations against Lamjarred, saying it is not fitting for Baghdad to host such a figure.
Others, who view Baghdad from a religious lens, believe the capital should not hold such events.
The cancellation fueled a heated debate on social media.
Some users expressed their opposition to the crackdown on art and culture in Baghdad, which has long been known for its diversity and tolerance.
Some backers of the cancellation said it would deter organizers from planning similar and even bigger concerts in the future. People backing this view are seen as fearful of modernity that they tie to normalizing relations with Israel.
Hardliners, meanwhile, said holding such concerts will pave the way for accepting more licentiousness practices.
This is not the first time that religious groups, under the pretext of "promoting virtue and preventing vice", have intervened to cancel concerts. They have previously forced the cancellation of other concerts, as well as beauty pageants. They also forced the closure of liquor stores and cracked down on fashion models, amid outrage from the cultural and intellectual elite who view Baghdad as a civil city.
The Iraqi Artists Syndicate lamented the cancellation of Lamjarred's concert, condemning the attack at Sindbad city.
In a statement, it said it followed with "deep regret and concern the recurrence of such attacks against artistic events in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities."
"We live in a country that has long used its diversity as a source of strength and beauty. We believe that the freedom of any group ends when it infringes on the freedom of others," it added.
"Iraq belongs to everyone and it is our duty to underscore the need to respect artistic and cultural events that have been approved by the relevant parties," it continued.
"We strongly condemn such practices that belong to extremist Middle Age groups, not to a land that witnessed the invention of the world's first ever musical instrument," it stressed.
The syndicate called on the concerned government parties to "carry out their duties that are defined by the constitution, which protects liberties against the systematic oppression."
It expressed its solidarity with the concert organizers, who suffered moral and financial losses from the cancellation, and with the Iraqi people, who saw in the event a glimmer of hope that would save them from political disputes that have been dragging down the country for years.
Commenting on the debate, the Ministry of Culture reiterated its support to the hosting of "events and shows of high artistic value that cater to the general taste."
Baghdad has hosted several artistic events and festivals that have been funded by private parties and companies, not the ministry, it explained.